Thursday, October 6, 2011

Putting up with it.

Two days ago we attended a session to evaluate our MA course, and one issue we had to address was sexual harassment -- if any of us had encountered it, and if there had been enough action against it.

It's no secret, we all hear from each other about a guy who hugs girls a tad too tight and long, another who passes off kissing girls on the cheek as 'part of his culture' (happily there are many other decent men from 'conservative' cultures who are offended by this blatant lie), and another who accosted a girl on her way back from the bathroom in these gender-mixed hostels of ISS.

A friend recounted her experience in an elevator with a male student who gave her this look, but you can't exactly report that as harassment. She brought up a great point -- that sometimes a look, word or a stance can be intimidating, but then because it's so subtle, you wonder if you as a woman are just being paranoid or if you should trust your gut feeling?

This made me think to the years of incidents, which I now call harassment. I remember being as young as 14, visiting my aunt in Kuala Lumpur, taking a walk in the early morning with my mother in my (what I considered) normal decent clothes -- long cotton pants, a long-sleeved tshirt and a headscarf worn in the simplest, most unfashionable way imaginable. We walked past a man in his twenties standing at the side of the road leading our from my aunt's residence, and he whistled at us.

During long morning and evening rides in the car pool to and from secondary school (I went to a secondary school 30 minutes away by car), Bangladeshi migrant workers would make faces at me as they sat in the back of lorries. I still don't walk by construction sites without thinking about men staring, but this is quite the worldwide phenomenon.

The most intriguing experience I had was in a food stall tucked away on the fourth floor of Far East Plaza, an old-ish shopping mall near Orchard Road, the shopping centre of Singapore. I was 19 and had come from a language class nearby to have dinner with a friend. I wore pretty much the same things as I do today -- Indian tunic, long trousers, headscarf. Nothing fancy or striking.

There were a group of young men who were leaving and whom we had to walk past to get to our tables. As we passed, one of them said:


I wasn't looking at him and I didn't reply.

"Sombongnye, kenapa tak balas??"
(Why don't you reply, you're so arrogant!)

Really? I was being arrogant because I didn't give him the attention that he felt entitled to? I don't greet random men in the street, perhaps only if I pass them in a mosque, and in Singapore (and many other countries) greeting a stranger of the opposite sex in the mosque is not even the norm. And if I do, I don't expect a greeting in return, let alone insult the person for not doing so.

For years I wondered what this incident meant, why I felt so uncomfortable by it even though there was a perfectly good Quranic justification for it: to reply if someone greets you with a similar or even better greeting (4:86).

Then I read this article about why 'hello' can make some of us so uncomfortable. It's about the attention that these men want, it's not about the greeting or the sincerity of the greeting. (You could perhaps gauge the young man's sincerity by his expectation of a greeting from me, and his reaction when there was none!)

I don't think it would be a stretch to conclude that this young man was saying 'hello' in a way to get attention, and not to greet me as a fellow Muslim. It's like the countless other men who mutter 'hello' under their breath as they pass (they're not even waiting for a reply!) you in the street, except this guy used a 'religious' greeting.

Here's another article on how harassment can be in the form of compliments. What I liked in this article was a comment by a reader at the end:
"...the worst problems with street harassment often don’t come from the men on the street harassing you – but rather from the prevailing attitudes among society/other men that it’s something you should welcome."
This is nicely illustrated by something that happened last year when I was in a supermarket in Johor. Another young man said 'hello' in Malay as he walked past me in the aisle. When I told my father what happened, he said:
" Well he just wants to be friends."
Men, don't feel left out. I know some men also experience this, especially those who do not fit the heterosexual, macho-looking norm. I kept short hair for 5 years and was constantly mistaken for a boy in Singapore and in Morocco (this was good though, prevented a lot of harassment!). The one incident I'll never forget -- I was sitting in Starbucks with a male friend and this rather old Indian man said this gem in passing:
"Handsome virgin boy..."

My friend and I fought over who he was directing his comment to. Hah!

What about you? What do you consider harassment? Do you do anything about it? Share your experiences.


Anonymous said...

Hi, this is Nurul Nadiah. Came by your blog in facebook.

Re: saying salam to strangers of opposite genders, if I remember correctly from what I learnt in weekend madrasah, it is not compulsory to reply the salam, and it may even be haram to reply if the reply invites fitnah or zina.

Sya said...

Hi Nadiah! You're right about that. Unfortunately I've had experiences where men quote that verse to me. Imagine :D

Sya said...

I think it's also important to not just look for the legal rulings to guide whatever action we need help for, but also see how there are tensions between our conscience and such rulings, and why.

Anonymous said...

I think tensions come about because we do not have enough knowledge about our own religion. The only real way to resolve it is to seek knowledge, IMHO. Tensions can be a good thing? Make us want to keep learning :)

orange streaks said...

I've had male students who use the salam as a way to annoy me, in the sense that they say it at inappropriate times (like when I'm angry for a good reason and am in no mood to tolerate nonsensical speech, or when I'm in the middle of explaining something and everyone's supposed to listen yet they use the salam randomly to interrupt my speech). And when I refuse to answer, they use that same typical line: tak jawab dosa. Once I retorted: Awak gunakan salam untuk sakitkan hati saya, lagi dosa! Not sure if I'm right about that though. ;p

Sya said...

Haha! Glad you know how I feel about this.


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